Vuelta 20: Perez closes in

A good day all round for the Phonak team as Quique Gutierrez takes the stage win at the Navacerrada

A good day all round for the Phonak team as Quique Gutierrez takes the stage win at the Navacerrada
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE The Vuelta really wouldn't be the Vuelta if the overall winner was pretty much decided before the final day of the race. As has been the case more often than not in recent years, tomorrow's final time trial in Madrid will decide the final major tour of the season, with Roberto Heras hoping he can cling on in the face of a relentless offensive from Santiago Perez, who trimmed another 30 seconds off the defending champion's lead in today's Puerto de Navacerrada summit finish, leaving Heras just 43 seconds ahead. It was a very good day all round for Perez's Phonak team as Jos Enrique 'Quique' Gutierrez won the stage on the mountain overlooking the northern edge of Madrid. Gutierrez went away early in the stage in a group of 12, and there were good climbers in the group to build a lead of more than 10 minutes. Crucially, this advantage proved just enough for Gutierrez to hang on to the top of the final climb. The dozen riders at the front cooperated more or less right to the foot of the seven-kilometre ascent of the Navacerrada. In the gold jersey group behind, Liberty Seguros were setting the pace in defence of Heras' lead, but their vulnerability to attack had already been shown on the first-cat Alto de Leon, where Paco Mancebo and Samuel Sanchez had briefly got clear before Heras' troops reacted and regained control. The battle for the stage win began with a flurry of attacks on the approach to the Navacerrada. Cofidis' Cdric Vasseur split the group initially, but Xorret de Cati stage winner Eladio Jimenez made the more decisive move, with Gutierrez and Rabobank's Maarten den Bakker quickly joining him. Just as Vasseur did get up to the leading trio, Gutierrez went again and no one was able to get on terms with him. With the peloton more than three minutes back, the Spaniard just had to maintain his effort to take victory. The first acceleration on the Navacerrada in the gold jersey group came from another Phonak rider, the disappointingly anonymous Oscar Sevilla. Alejandro Valverde, who has struggled in recent days, once again employed the tactic of trying to hide his frailty by pushing up the pace and trying to escape. Yet again, the bluff failed, as Valverde found himself watching Perez shoot past, with the desperated Heras following. If Heras could have held on to Perez his advantage in tomorrow's 28-kilometre test would surely have been enough to assure overall victory. But two kilometres from the summit he began to lose contact, and Perez surged on to the summit. In the end, the race leader was probably happy to have lost just 30 seconds of his lead. Behind these two, Mancebo finally managed to get some daylight between himself and Valverde, and with it pushed himself above the CV-Kelme rider into third place. The Illes Balears team leader now has a lead of seven seconds to take into tomorrow's fight for the what will surely be the final spot on the podium behind Heras and Perez. As for those two, as specialist climbers neither will relish the final day time trial, although Heras has said the course does suit him better than the pan flat stage on which he lost the 2002 race to Aitor Gonzalez. Heras also has the benefit of knowing he finished comfortably ahead of Perez in the race's previous long time trial at the Ford factory near Valencia. However, balanced against those advantages for Heras is the fact that everyone admits that Perez is the strongest rider in the race right now. He may not be a time trial specialist, but he has the advantage of form and being able to apply pressure on the race leader by riding ahead of him. If Perez does start to claw time back, Heras just might lose the Vuelta on the final day for the second time in three years. Stage 20, La Vega de Alcobendas-Puerto de Navacerrada 1 Jos Enrique Gutierrez (Spa) Phonak 178km in 4.52.20 (36.53kph) 2 Eladio Jimenez (Spa) CV-Kelme 0.38 3 David Latasa (Spa) CV-Kelme 1.25 4 Santiago Perez (Spa) Phonak 1.37 5 Aitor Perez (Spa) Cafs Baqu 2.03 6 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 2.07 7 Cedric Vasseur (Fra) Cofidis 8 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears 2.10 9 Jorge Ferrio (Spa) Costa de Almeria 2.18 10 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) CV-Kelme 11 Carlos Garcia Quesada (Spa) CV-Kelme 2.24 12 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval 2.27 13 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 14 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 15 Maarten den Bakker (Hol) Rabobank 2.39 16 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Saeco 2.48 17 Joan Horrach (Spa) Illes Balears 2.49 18 Roberto Laiseka (Spa) Euskaltel 2.56 19 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 2.57 20 Rafael Casero (Spa) Saunier Duval 3.01 Overall standings 1 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 77.07.28 2 Santiago Perez (Spa) Phonak 0.43 3 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears 2.19 4 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) CV-Kelme 2.26 5 Carlos Garcia Quesada (Spa) CV-Kelme 6.33 6 Isidro Nozal (Spa) Liberty Seguros 7.16 7 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 8.16 8 Angel Gomez (Spa) Costa de Almeria 12.11 9 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 12.45 10 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Vini Caldirola 14.35 11 David Blanco (Spa) CV-Kelme 15.10 12 Marcos Serrano (Spa) Liberty Seguros 16.07 13 Manuel Beltran (Spa) US Postal 16.08 14 Francisco Lara (Spa) Costa de Almeria 22.21 15 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 27.28 16 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Saeco 28.37 17 Jorge Ferrio (Spa) Costa de Almeria 28.40 18 David Plaza (Spa) Cafs Baqu 29.15 19 Eladio Jimenez (Spa) CV-Kelme 31.26 20 Luis Pasamontes (Spa) Relax-Bodysol 35.09 Points 1 Erik Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile 152 2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) CV-Kelme 142 3 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 128 Mountains 1 Felix Cardenas (Col) Cafs Baqu 167 2 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 111 3 Santiago Perez (Spa) Phonak 110
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